A farm worker walks a field

A farm worker labors in a field near the town of Arvin, southeast of Bakersfield, California.

(Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

Climate Policy's on Shaky Ground in the Farm Bill

As the struggle against fossil fuels carries on in our states and communities, the quest for serious action in Washington on climate and ecological renewal will focus largely on the national push for a radically new kind of Farm Bill.

Members of Congress have begun drafting the 2023 "Farm Bill," and they’ll be wrangling over it through most of the year. This legislation, passed into law anew every fifth year or so since the 1930s, has had far-reaching influence on food and farming in the United States. Each version of the bill is given its own name; the previous one, for example, was called the Agriculture Improvement Act of 2018. Given the nature of the early debate over this bill-in-the-making, it might end up deserving to be called the Food and Climate Bill of 2023.

Over the next two years, any legislation explicitly aimed at reducing greenhouse-gas emissions will be dead on arrival in the GOP-controlled House of Representatives. By default, the Farm Bill may now be the playing field for the only climate game in town, according to Washington-watchers such as Peter Lehner, who represents the group Earthjustice. He told Politico last month, “The farm bill is probably going to be the piece of legislation in the next two years with the biggest impact on the climate and the environment.”

Last year’s Inflation Reduction Act beefed up several of the Farm Bill’s climate-related conservation programs to the tune of an additional $20 billion. And the Washington Post has reported that a task force of more than 80 “climate-conscious House Democrats” is working to further extend the bill’s green impact, with additional protection for existing forests; planting of new stands of trees; conservation of soil, water, and biodiversity; and research on protecting crops against climatic disasters, including drought.

Meanwhile, March 6–8, a coalition of 20 sustainable ag and farmworker groups under the banner Farmers for Climate Action held a “Rally for Resilience” in D.C. Their message: “The next Farm Bill needs to explicitly empower farmers to address climate change, by providing resources, assistance, and incentives that will allow them to lead the way in implementing proven climate solutions.”

Climate politics get dirtier

Because there are farmers and ag-related industries in every state, whether red, blue, or purple, Farm Bills routinely pass with broad bipartisan support. It’s typical, therefore, for Congress members representing rural red states to make common cause with those who represent populous blue states with big ag economies, such as California, Illinois, and Michigan. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly “food stamps”) and the Women’s, Infants, and Children (WIC) nutrition program also are parts of the Farm Bill, further extending its political base of support.

Controversy arises nonetheless, most often in debates over the bill’s conservation provisions. Agribusiness, for example, often sees protection of soil, air, water, and biodiversity in rural areas as detracting from or interfering with the Farm Bill’s focus on boosting production of the major commodity crops and keeping food prices low. And now that climate action is increasingly finding a home in the conservation section, pushback from the right has increased.

The chair of the House Agriculture Committee, G. T. Thompson (R-PA) has vowed to minimize climate policy in this year’s Farm Bill, while cutting other conservation programs in favor of traditional industry-friendly spending. According toEENews, “Some Republicans are eyeing the farm bill as a chance to redirect climate money to other agriculture programs, such as crop subsidies, while other conservative lawmakers want across-the-board spending cuts.” The hardliners may even try to rescind the $20 billion for climate mitigation that the Inflation Reduction Act has directed toward the Farm Bill.

Climate denial is alive and well in Congress. Doug LaMalfa (R-CA), who now chairs the conservation subcommittee of the ag committee, told Politico, somewhat fuzzily, that “CO2 is not responsible. Especially American-produced CO2, I mean we’re a tiny part of the whole thing.” Rep. John Boozman (R-AR) is trying to divert attention to just about any remotely ag-related issue that doesn’t involve climate protection. Pointing his colleagues toward a couple of favorite targets of right-wing hostility, he has called for investigations into the purchase of U.S. farmland by Chinese interests and for cuts in SNAP benefits to low-income families. Meanwhile, five House members led by Matt Gaetz (R-FL) got even meaner, with a letter to President Biden urging him to “enact work requirements” for SNAP recipients.

Feed people, not steers and SUVs

Farm Bill debates are often complex, technical, and littered with clumsy acronyms, commodity-market arcana, and bureaucratic jargon. Only the nerdiest Congress-watchers have the attention span and patience to go deep enough into the weeds (literally, in some parts of the bill) to understand what it’s all about. Even in Congress, only a minority of members and staff have solid familiarity with the issues. This year, nearly half the members of the House of Representatives have almost zero Farm Bill experience, as they were not in office during the last debate, five years ago. But with climate at the center of this year’s debate, members on both sides of the aisle, whether well-schooled in ag issues or not, are now wading into the fray.

Most of the policies that are needed to flip U.S. agriculture’s climate impact from deleterious to beneficial are good and necessary in their own right. Even if there were no climate emergency, the nation should be adopting agricultural policies that, along with cutting emissions, can improve soil health; prevent erosion and water pollution; curb the ongoing wipeout of biodiversity; and prevent agriculture from further disrupting the global nitrogen and phosphorous cycles.

The first step would be to stop doing things that not only generate greenhouse-gas emissions but also wreak ecological havoc of other sorts. If you don’t mind taking just a few steps into those weeds with me for a moment, I’d like to cite scientists at the University of Georgia and the University of New Mexico who have argued convincingly for deep cuts in the production of fuel ethanol and meat—especially grain-fed beef—actions that, they show, could achieve the greatest reductions of fossil energy use (and therefore of greenhouse gas emissions) in agriculture. The quantity of energy contained in the fossil fuels used to produce feed grains for cattle exceeds by an order of magnitude the amount of energy contained in the beef that’s produced by those cattle and sold. And the production and delivery of fuel ethanol, from the cornfield to the gas pump, requires as much or more energy (mostly from fossil fuels) as the ethanol will supply to a vehicle’s engine.

Beef and ethanol also have a broad range of other disastrous environmental impacts.

Therefore, the most effective action Congress could take is to stop using the Farm Bill’s conservation funds to support these and other ecologically harmful, climate-busting agricultural practices. For example, the 2018 Farm Bill supported one such practice: confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), such as cattle feedlots and factory farms for swine and poultry. These super-polluting facilities have deeply negative impacts on both local environments and the global climate. The 2023 bill should end all support for CAFOs. And rather than pursue the expansion of ethanol production, as the Department of Agriculture is requesting, Congress should flush ethanol completely out of ag policy.

We can’t get there with annual crops

Agriculture generates only 11 percent of total U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions, so reducing emissions from the farm sector, important as it is, can go only so far toward driving total U.S. emissions toward zero quickly and steeply. However, unlike other sectors of the economy, farming also has the potential to help mitigate climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through nature’s preferred method of carbon sequestration: photosynthesis.

To use U.S. farmlands and forests as reservoirs for atmospheric carbon would help to reverse a massive loss of soil carbon that began long before the age of mechanized agriculture. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, native grasslands and forestlands across North America were plowed up to make way for corn, wheat, cotton, and other annual crops—replacing vast, biodiverse, perennial ecosystems with plantings of annual monocultures. Extensive root systems, alive year-round, were killed off across hundreds of millions of acres, to be replaced by the sparser, ephemeral root systems of crops that had to be resown with every growing season. For much of the year, there were now only spindly seedling roots or no living roots at all to support the soil ecosystems that had thrived before the arrival of the plow. Consequently, over subsequent decades, countless tons of carbon that had been captured by plants over millions of years went back up into the atmosphere.

Accumulating enough carbon in the soil to mitigate climate change effectively will require switching from annual to perennial crops across most of U.S. farm country, to get soils even part way back to their robust state. Fortunately, the necessity for perennial agriculture is being expressed more widely in this year’s Farm Bill discussion than in previous years, with both the scientific community and grassroots climate and sustainable-agriculture groups calling for more perennial farming systems.

For example, a coalition called Farm Bill Law Enterprise, “a national partnership of law school programs working toward a farm bill that reflects the long-term needs of our society,” is arguing that perennial agriculture must be one of the highest priorities in the 2023 bill. In its report, titled simply, “Climate and Conservation,” the group pushes for perennial forage crops; interplanting of tree crops with annual crops; “forest farming and multi-story cropping”; perennial fruits and vegetables; and perennial cereals, grain legumes, and oilseeds. The group goes on to urge more funding for research and development of perennial agriculture in the U.S. Department of Agriculture itself, especially on grain crops, and for “research on the economic and social conditions critical to development of perennial agriculture systems and markets.”

Needed: A fifty-year Farm Bill

Reducing greenhouse-gas emissions from agriculture by ditching products such as fuel ethanol and grain-fed beef would mesh nicely with the use of perennial crops to capture more atmospheric carbon and store more of it in living roots deep in the soil. If U.S. farmers were to stop producing the bazillions of bushels of corn and soybeans that go into feeding cattle and biofuel plants, tens of millions of acres would be newly available for growing perennial range, hay, and pasture crops. From those, more modest quantities of grass-fed beef and dairy products could be produced. And each year, more and more of the lands liberated from annual feed grains could be sown to perennial food-grain crops.

Wes Jackson and Fred Kirschenmann envisioned this sort of grand transition in their proposal for a “Fifty-Year Farm Bill” in 2009. But at the time, the breeding of perennial food-grain crops (which would be necessary to achieve that last step in the transition) was just getting started. That process is now well underway.

Over the past two decades, efforts to domesticate and breed perennial grain-producing crops have progressed from their beginnings at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas (where I work), to be taken up by research networks worldwide. These networks now include more than 50 researchers across North America and five other continents, and solid results are emerging. Development of perennial wheat is accelerating. A perennial cousin of wheat known as Kernza® is under pilot production in the U.S. Plains, the upper Midwest, and Europe. Highly productive perennial rice varieties are being grown on tens of thousands of acres in China and on a smaller scale in East Africa as well. Breeding and ecological work are continuing, with perennial food legumes and perennial grain sorghum under development, in addition to the wheat and rice.

* * *

The need to start a precipitous phase-out of oil, gas, and coal is more acute than ever, but federal legislation will remain out of reach as long as there’s a climate-hostile House majority. So, as the struggle against fossil fuels carries on in our states and communities, the quest for serious action in Washington on climate and ecological renewal will focus largely on the national push for a radically new kind of Farm Bill.

It is essential both to purge fossil fuels and to perennialize agriculture. No two policies are more crucial to preventing ecological meltdown.

The original version of this article was published by City Lights Books as part of their ‘In Real Time’ series and appears at Common Dreams with permission.

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